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Court ruling sets 'new precedent' for mental health housing

June 9, 2011
by Nick Zubko, Associate Editor
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N.J. agency fights discrimination to get plans for new facility back on track

Last week, a judge overruled a local zoning board decision, finding that the Mental Health Association (MHA) of Essex County, Inc., Montclair, N.J., could proceed with its plans to build a $2.8 million “supportive housing” facility for individuals with mental illness on a one-acre plot of land it had purchased in a nearby neighborhood.

The ruling comes more than 18 months after the agency originally filed its plan with the Montclair Board of Adjustment in late 2009, which involved the construction of two new buildings (six units in each), along with a fitness center, half basketball court, walking track and a wellness and recovery garden.

While the adjustment board conceded that the proposal would satisfy its criteria for “compelling, inherently beneficial use,” the required variances (due to the property's single family zoning) were declined in August 2010 on the grounds that the development would constitute a “substantial detriment" to the zoning plan and the community.

However, that explanation was “bogus,” according to Bob Davison, MA, LPC, the association’s executive director. “The decision was specious, arbitrary and wasn’t based on the law,” Davison said. “We believe the board simply succumbed to the pressure placed on them by [members of the public].”

 

Bob Davison, MA, LPC, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Essex County, Inc.

In fact, the public expressed considerable opposition during the five hearings that took place between January and July 2010, which, according to Davison, “took the form of prejudicial and discriminatory comments—both by the objectors in the audience, as well as by some members of the board.”

According to a trial brief for the case, members of the public referred to the development as a “blatantly offensive injustice,” and urged the adjustment board not to grant the variances to prevent “continuous devastation” and stop the “fabric of the township from being torn to shreds.”

Keeping the project from moving forward would “ensure that the character and integrity of the neighborhood" was maintained, noted one individual, while another expressed fear that the housing project would result in a “ghetto-izing” of the area.

"There’s always the potential for opposition, but in this day and age I was surprised by the tone,” noted Davison. “The remarks that people were making were very discriminatory, prejudicial and stigmatizing toward individuals with mental illness. It was really offensive.”

By October 2010, MHA had appealed the Montclair Adjustment Board’s decision to the New Jersey Superior Court. According to Davison, due to the discriminatory and prejudicial remarks of the objectors, the association was “duty bound” to move forward.

“It wasn’t just about developing that property, it was about fighting the good fight and defending the rights of individuals with mental illness,” he said. “Often organizations like ours fold their tent, but we felt that would be a disservice to the individuals we serve.”

For several months, nothing happened. But when the case was finally heard on June 2, Superior Court Judge Sebastian Lombardi reviewed the record and rendered an oral opinion the same day.
The adjustment board’s decision was overturned and the MHA of Essex County would be able to proceed with the project as planned.

While the stigma and subsequent intolerance associated with mental illness likely won’t be alleviated anytime soon, Davison said he believes the ruling could introduce an important tool to help other mental health agencies that find themselves in these all-too-familiar situations.

“This [level of opposition] is still very prevalent, but now we have case law supporting this type of development. It establishes a precedent,” he explained. "Soon, other communities will get the message."

Now that MHA can get back to educating the community, raising awareness, and alleviating the stigma of mental illness, the next priority, Davison noted, is to “build a first-class development, run it well, and show people they have nothing to fear.”

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